Harvard historian Jill Lepore says that she “never set out to study history. I only ever set out to write. The history I read bugged me.” Now she pursues both history and writing with great intelligence, boundless curiosity, a relentless pursuit of facts and concern about very important subjects. Her books include the bestselling These Truths: A History of the United States and Bancroft Prize-winning The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity. Since 2005, she has also been a staff writer at The New Yorker where most of the essays in her dazzling new collection The Deadline originally appeared.
Many of these essays concern the relationship between what has happened in the past and how it relates to the present. In “Battleground America,” Lepore discusses the complicated history of the Second Amendment while in “The Riot Report,” she focuses on the numerous special commission reports that have been published over the years and how little has come from them.
In “Drafted,” an essay published last year, Lepore writes: “Beginning in the summer of 2022, women in about half of the United States may be breaking the law if they decide to end a pregnancy. This will be, in large part, because Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito appears to have been surprised that there is so little written about abortion in a four-thousand-word document crafted by fifty-five men in 1787. . . . There is nothing in that document about women at all. Most consequentially, there is nothing in that document—or in the circumstances under which it was written—that suggests its authors imagined women as part of the political community.” Of course, “Legally, most women did not exist as persons.”
Lepore considers this while also spending time in other essays investigating such varied topics as why King John affixed his seal to what became known as the Magna Carta, whether mission statements for organizations are just “baloney” and the history of the term “burnout.” Lepore went to both Republican and Democratic conventions in 2016 and shares her impressions. There are perceptive discussions of the lives and ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft, Rachel Carson, Eugene Debs and Herman Melville. Whether the subject is technology, law, culture, bicycling or children, her insights hold our attention. Overall, this is an outstanding collection, sure to be enjoyed by a wide range of readers.